Cuba’s Roman Catholic church hopes for more movement on political prisoners

By Paul Haven, AP
Thursday, June 10, 2010

Church in Cuba hopes for more progress on inmates

HAVANA — Cuba’s Roman Catholic Church hopes the government will make more concessions to improve the lot of the island’s 200 political prisoners, with a church official saying Thursday that the recent transfer of some to jails closer to home has “raised expectations” for more change.

“We continue to hope that gestures like the first one they made continue,” Orlando Marquez, a church official in Havana, said at a news conference. “Any gesture they make would be welcomed by the church … which wants to improve the situation for the prisoners and their families.”

The church has suddenly raised its profile on Cuba’s political scene, particularly in regard to dissidents.

Last month, Havana Cardinal Jaime Ortega helped negotiate the end to a standoff between the government and the Ladies in White, comprised of the wives and mothers of 75 people arrested in a 2003 crackdown on dissent.

Ortega and another church leader later met with Cuban President Raul Castro and the church announced that the government would move political prisoners to lockups closer to their homes, as well as granting prisoners better access to medical care.

Six prisoners have been transferred so far, fewer than many family members had hoped. There has been no word yet of increased access to medical care. The Cuban government, which considers the dissidents to be paid stooges of Washington, has had no comment.

Speculation has grown that the government might take more steps during or around a visit to the island next week by the Vatican’s foreign minister, Archbishop Dominique Mamberti.

Marquez would not say whether the church expects such a move.

“We’ve never talked about a date or marked down on a calendar when these things will happen,” he said. “Whenever these gestures are made they will be welcome, independent of the visit of Monsignor Mamberti or if they are made before, after or during.”

Still, Marquez made clear the church thinks the concessions will continue.

“Once they made the first step, they raised expectations,” he said. “Even though no other gestures have been made up until now on prisoner transfers, there is nothing to indicate that the process has stopped.”

Mamberti is the first top Vatican official to come to Cuba since Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, secretary of state to Pope Benedict XVI, visited the island in February 2008. He is scheduled to meet with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, and hold talks on the island’s economic challenges and the effects of emigration and the families torn apart by it.

Relations between the church and Cuba’s government have often been strained. Tensions eased in the early 1990s when the government removed references to atheism in the constitution and allowed believers of all faiths to join the Communist Party. They warmed more when Pope John Paul II visited Cuba in 1998.

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